Only a madman like the fictional Dr. Strangelove would brag about such a destructive weapon.
Yet, Russian media has openly boasted that its new RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is more accurate than its predecessors, and is “capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.”
Experts say this hundred-tonne, twelve-warhead behemoth makes America’s thirty-nine-ton Minuteman ICBM look like a rocket-propelled Pink’s hotdog.
Add another fierce doomsday weapon to president Vladimir Putin’s ever-growing arsenal — it will look awesome in the next Annual Victory Day Parade.
But as Winston Churchill said in 1952, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.”
That was just two years after America tested the first hydrogen bomb, and five years before the United States deployed the first ICBM.
Fast forward to today’s nuclear milieu, where the US appears to be re- joining the missile race with its Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), a replacement for its fifty-year-old force of Minuteman ICBMs.
Estimated to cost at least US$85 billion, the Pentagon says GBSD is needed because the US land-based ICBM infrastructure dates back to the mid-1960s, while even the current Minuteman III missile was first deployed in 1970.
Ironically, it was President Obama — who received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo — who proposed the complete modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal.
The US under Obama transformed its main hydrogen bomb into a guided smart weapon, made its submarine-launched nuclear missiles five times more accurate, and gave its land-based long-range missiles so many added features that the Air Force in 2012 described them as “basically new,” Reuters reported.
Some say that beefed up weapons are a more effective deterrent, reducing the chance of war.
Cherry Murray served as a top official at the Energy Department, which runs the US warhead inventory. She said the reduction in nuclear weapon stockpiles under New START (recently extended five years) makes it imperative that Washington improve its arsenal.
During the Cold War, Murray said, the US had so many missiles that if one didn’t work, the military could simply discard it. With the new limit of 1,550 warheads, every one counts, she said.
“When you get down to that number we better make sure they work,” she said. “And we better make sure our adversaries believe they work.”
The head of Strategic Command (STRATCOM) this week described China’s investments in its nuclear arsenal as a “strategic breakout” that will shortly allow Beijing to execute “any plausible nuclear” strategy it wishes to pursue, Breaking Defense reported.
“You’re not gonna find the definition of ‘strategic breakout’ in a doctrine or a manual — and I think it’s one of about four words in the Department of Defense that doesn’t have a definition buried in some joint pub somewhere — but it is significant and I don’t use the term lightly,” Adm. Charles Richard said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.
“Business as usual will not work.”
Richard based this warning on the fact China is boosting all areas of its missile force, including both quantity and quality of its strategic delivery systems — the “explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking. Frankly, that word, breathtaking, may not be enough.”
“Look, and I know, I read the press like y’all do, there’s been a lot of speculation out there as to why they are doing all of this,” said Richard.
“I just want to say right now, it really doesn’t matter why China is and continues to grow and modernize. What matters is they are building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy — the last brick in the wall of a military capable of coercion.”
Now that we’re good and scared, and hiding under our collective blankets, let us ask the question: Does the existing arsenal do the job, or must America buy new?
If the goal is to deter an attack, the old ICBMs will work as well as the new ones, writes Peck.
Since American missiles are equally capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Moscow or St. Petersburg, what advantage does Russia gain?
Yes, it’s great news for US defense contractors, east and west, but what do America and Russia — and their respective citizens — really get out of this spending spree?
Can you imagine Putin or any Russian leader taking a chance that his nation won’t be reduced to the level of Mad Max, writes Peck?
Interestingly, Russian media reports that “Sarmat warheads will have an array of advanced antimissile countermeasures meant to penetrate the US ABM [antiballistic missile] shield.”
Which suggests that the new missile may be aimed at penetrating American missile defenses, or at least signaling that Moscow has the capability to do so, Peck writes.
But the fact is that the US Ballistic Missile Defense System is only designed to stop a limited ICBM barrage from small nations like North Korea and Iran, not an all-out Russian strike.
Oddly enough, Moscow has more faith in US missile defense than the Government Accountability Office and other critics, who point to numerous flaws that quite possibly will render the system ineffective.
It is equally hard to see how GBSD will enhance American security.
The Air Force says the Minuteman III force is becoming too vulnerable to attack. But if Russia were to contemplate launching a nuclear strike upon the United States, it seems unlikely that the age of US ICBMs would make a difference, Peck writes.
As for a rogue state like North Korea, they will launch a missile at the United States for their own reasons, and not because it will be a Minuteman or a GBSD that will turn the Hermit Kingdom into radioactive slag.
What does make more sense is the obsolescence issue for missiles that date back to the Nixon and Brezhnev era.
The Sarmat is supposed to replace Russia’s aging 1970s RS-36M2 missiles. Think it’s hard to get parts for a fifty-year-old car or refrigerator, or MS-DOS software to play on your Windows 10 computer?
The US ICBM force was built with a lot of custom parts that aren’t built anymore.
Notoriously, a special wrench was needed to install nuclear warheads on America’s 450 Minuteman III missiles: there was only one tool kit that had the wrench, which had to be FedExed from base to base, Peck writes.
And let us not forget, each SSBN submarine, which make up the sea-based leg of the US nuclear triad, is armed with up to 24 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) with MIRV warheads that can be accurately delivered to selected targets from almost anywhere in the world’s oceans.
And the US Navy has a lot SSBN submarines. Just one of those subs, could devastate the Chinese or Russian continent.
The most flexible leg of the triad consists of 46 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress and 20 B-2A Spirit aircraft, capable of providing massive firepower in a short time anywhere on the globe … even through the most advanced defenses.
Which brings us back to Dr. Strangelove — a classic apocalyptic film that depicted a rogue general, sending a B-52 wing against the Soviet Union.
Officials said then, it couldn’t happen. But we know it could.
Just like we know Churchill liked his cigars.
Perhaps it was inevitable that new missiles would be needed once the old ones became unreliable or too expensive to maintain. Nonetheless, there are promising technologies other than big, silo-based ICBMs, such as hypersonic weapons, Peck writes.
Meanwhile, China is buffing its conventional military capabilities in the Pacific.
Russia is waging a hybrid mixture of conventional and unconventional warfare — it can fire hypersonic weapons from submarines. And they can’t be stopped.
Does America really need to spend billions on new ICBMs?
Sources: National Interest, Reuters, ArmsControl.org, Breaking Defense